Assassin’s Creed III‘s Connor: How Ubisoft Avoided Stereotypes and Made a Real Character

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About one year into the making of Assassin’s Creed III, the team at Ubisoft Montreal realized they needed help with their protagonist.

Ubisoft had the concept for a half-Mohawk, half-British assassin named Connor, who would fit the role of an outsider during the game’s American Revolution setting. But the last thing they wanted was a collection of clichés and stereotypes, so they began digging into the intricacies of Mohawk culture to make Connor more authentic. On their own, that turned out to be too difficult.

The team was running into too many faux pas and factual errors, so around April of 2011, Ubisoft Montreal hired a Mohawk cultural consultant to be on call at all times. The team also worked with the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk community near Montreal and contracted some of its residents to help translate, sing and voice act for the game.

“There are people from all over the world on our team, but we’re very aware that we’re still pretty much a bunch of early-middle-aged white guys,” Alex Hutchinson, Assassin’s Creed III‘s creative director, said in an interview. “We didn’t want to make mistakes, even well-intentioned mistakes.”

Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center

The consultant, Thomas Deer of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, helped steer Ubisoft Montreal away from errors. When the team asked about including ceremonial masks in the game, Deer warned them that any visual depiction of the sacred masks is considered offensive.  He advised them on which types of clothing and jewelry to use and which types of spiritual music were off-limits. Even Connor’s name had to be cleared for use–in Mohawk culture, each name must be unique–and Ubisoft’s lawyers agreed not to trademark it.

“It seemed like they went above and beyond in trying to get the community involved,” Deer said in an interview, “and I don’t think it was really so much to cover their butts, just that they wanted to have a real, authentic product that stood up.”

That attention to detail isn’t always a given in video games, which like other media has been known to under-represent minorities, and to rely on clichés and stereotypes for non-white characters.

A 2009 study of games released between 2005 and 2006 found that the most popular games had a greater percentage of white male characters than even the general U.S. population, and that Native Americans and Hispanic main characters were nonexistent. A content analysis of games from roughly the same time period found that minority male characters were portrayed as more aggressive than whites, and were often relegated to athletic or violent roles. They were seldom shown to operate computers or serve in the military.

Fielding Graduate University professor Karen Dill, who co-authored the latter study, said those types of depictions can be damaging. Although people may think they can recognize stereotypes in games and separate them from reality, Dill said, studies show that people tend to base their perceptions on media, especially when they don’t have much interaction with minorities.

“We don’t have a switch in our heads that says ‘real or unreal’ like we think we do,” Dill said in an interview.

Native American video game characters are particularly rare. And when they do appear–as with characters like Nightwolf from Mortal Kombat or Tal’Set from Turok: Dinosaur Hunter–they’re often boiled down to generic, spiritual people. Nuances in the culture are lost.

Mohawk village concept art, courtesy of Ubisoft

Deer said those generalizations are what bother him most, and he’s witnessed the effects. Many visitors to the cultural center, for instance, are surprised to see that Mohawks didn’t live in tee-pees, when they in fact lived in longhouses.

“Each individual indigenous nation in Canada and the United States is very different from one another, and I think mainstream society paints us in one brush,” he said.

Assassin’s Creed III‘s Connor doesn’t fall into that trap, and although Deer said he was worried about how the Mohawk community would react to the idea of a half-Native, ax-wielding assassin, he said their concerns faded as Ubisoft came into the community. (Deer notes, however, that he hasn’t actually seen the game, which launches on October 30. “I do have to say that I’ll only really know, once the game comes out, if they listened to me,” he said with a laugh.)

Without revealing any major plot details, Ubisoft’s Hutchinson also said it helps that Connor isn’t solely defined by his heritage. “I think that’s what attracted a lot of the groups to work with us. We had this idea that we’re just going to have a character, he’s a real character, he’s part of a 30-hour story, and you follow his whole life–and he’s also Native American,” he said. “It’s not a cardboard cutout.”

As for whether video games as whole can do better with portraying minorities, Hutchinson sees signs of improvement, such as the introduction of female heroes and another black squad member in 2011’s Gears of War 3. But he also said game developers could be more ambitious, and don’t need to rely so much on white males for mass appeal.

“I think they’re missing out on some fascinating stories and some fascinating opportunities by constraining themselves,” he said.

Dustin Clingman, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association, is optimistic for improvement, though he admits the industry has “a long way to go.” He’s seen more diversity among game developers, which may lead to a broader cultural palette in the games they create, and he thinks audiences are demanding that.

“I think they’re hungry for more sophisticated stories,” Clingman said, “and that gives designers and writers the opportunity to take advantage of that and create a more diverse cast of characters.”

MORE: The Fall 2012 Video Game Lineup: 15 Games to Watch

33 comments
Joseph T Namida
Joseph T Namida

"

“I think they’re missing out on some fascinating stories and some fascinating opportunities by constraining themselves,” he said"

i agree and all of the assassins creed games are all minorities and they turned out amazingly.  Ezio Auditore, and Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad

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leonardo boiko
leonardo boiko

This was very good.  I just wish the character was an actual, fully-empowered native protagonist, instead of playing it safe with the half-white / ButNotTooForeign trope.

loose_cannon
loose_cannon

What I find interesting is that this article was written without a single mention of the depiction of black slaves. For me the big question is whether slavery (of people of african and/or native american descent) will be shown at all. 

NYC's No Lark
NYC's No Lark

I do not know yet how much Ubisoft is going to put it into the world, but they have already shown at a single Black woman that took part in a mission where she called for a British soldier so Connor can kill him.

msteel271
msteel271

It occurred to me while playing Mass Effect 2 that video games have actually become far better with diversity and female characters than movies and TV.

There I was, playing a female character, fighting next to two squadmates -- another female and a black male.  And we were kicking ass.  Show me a movie with that lineup.

There are blind spots to be sure, but they are improving.  In Fallout 3 for example, you had the option to play as a hispanic or Asian character.  Hell, even in the epic fantasy Skyrim you can play as a black Redguard while discriminating against dark elves and getting married to a character of the same gender.

Paul Hanson
Paul Hanson

It's important to have a map when you start to veer from your usual path, like a male author writing female characters, which is what Ubisoft did. Connor sounds like a character with a Mohawk background, not a Mohawk character that's either a token or worse, a caricature.

Stephanie Furlan
Stephanie Furlan

Gamers definitely  want more diverse and sophisticated storylines and characters. Aside from catering to the male gamer, I think companies should consider their female gamers too. They are just as skilled in playing games and want characters they can relate to. Female gamers don't want "Damsels-in-distress" we want strong, well-thought out female characters  that can just kick as much ass as the male character. The industry needs to start changing.

Louis-Augustin Roy
Louis-Augustin Roy

That's good news. It could be nice if developpers (not AC's, in general) would sometimes hire a female sociologist to point them the women stereotypes they use.

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

No way Lol female stereotypes are what make games fun and more entertaining, nobody but a moron takes everything they see and hear as 100% true!

If we cannot even have a little bit of fun with wacky game worlds where stereotypes are all real, then we might as well not make or play them.

We play games to escape reality not play a simulation with all the strict laws and political correctness that we are FORCED to suffer and endure on a day to day basis.

Stop trying to enforce real world laws and for crying out loud enough put and end to dam political correctness in GAMES it is not like it is hurting anybody now is it!

Jared Newman
Jared Newman

As the article points out, studies show that people can't just flip a switch in their heads that says "this isn't real," so the attitude that it's not hurting anyone doesn't fly.

No one's saying people interpret stereotypes as 100 percent true, but if you're exposed to enough stereotypes in media, chances are they will shape your real-world feelings, even if only on a subconscious level.

Personally I think you can still have unrealistic characters that allow you to escape reality without relying on cheap stereotypes. Connor is a great example: He's in many ways a typical video game hero, who kills tons of dudes with badass weapons and climbs trees and buildings without ever getting tired, but the game also stays true to his heritage.

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

Yes I know it can be hard to interpret what is real and what is a stereotype. But that should not mean that developers are practically banned from using them.

As I have said before this will only limit creative freedom, I also am not saying that every game should be using them, but instead they should have the freedom to do so if they choice to.

I am also not saying that all types of stereotypes can or should be used, as many of them are deliberately insulting and should not be the main focus of a character's development.

A example of this and believe me when I say this is not against the French it is just a good example, is that if a developer made a character French and continuously depicted him as a coward.

This is an example of a horrible stereotype based on actions taken by a small minority of French from century's ago.

But on the other hand making a character who is French and loves cheese and eating frog legs or something along those lines could be consider humorous in certain circumstances.

Especially if not over used, I hope this makes my point clearer as I agree that some stereotypes are insulting. But as I said before using them in a sensible way can make the characters more amusing and interesting.

JenVer
JenVer

You play games to escape reality. So do the subjects of these stereotypes. Stereotyping /is/ imposing real-world politics on a video game, and we're sick of being "FORCED to suffer and endure [it] on a day to day basis" too.

When you say it isn't hurting people, what you are basing that on is that it isn't hurting you. "Political correctness" certainly isn't physically breaking people's doors down.

TheAlphaSoup
TheAlphaSoup

*pic displays white male*

Mmm-hmm, tell it, boy! Yeah you tell those minorities how to feel!

Gabriel Lee
Gabriel Lee

Stereotypes exist for a reason, most of them are too extreme, but we are all defined by our differences. My suggestion...if you don't like the game, don't play the game. Or if you think you can do better, go for it, make your own game.

Olivia Ong
Olivia Ong

The majority of the games industry attitude is like yours: you are a reasonable, respectful guy, and have the best intentions and you're just trying to have fun, but you don't realise that stereotypes harm the minorities they portray.

When you ARE the minority being stereotyped, it does affect you. When I play games, I publicly laugh off the sheer amount of caricatured depictions of (my minority groups), but inside, it makes me uncomfortable. I'm not offended but deep down I know these kind of images are undermining my credibility in culture and society.

There is no "inside the game" and "outside the game" when it comes to attitudes about racial and cultural groups and gender. When you ridicule a minority inside a game, your hands will not be clean after you press Exit.

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

You sound like your trying to give the impression, that I believe that if it is not hurting me, that it is OK to do it.

If this is what you believe than you are very wrong!

Also your opinion about me is seriously wrong since stereotypes and political correctness does cause me harm!

But I am not so petty and dull that I will use it as a excuse for removing all existence of it.

I am going to have to leave this debate as I have to get back to work now, I assume that this could go on forever and would rather be the bigger man and walk away so to speak.

Let's just agree to disagree and leave it at that OK?

Kerwin Octavo
Kerwin Octavo

But Nosoz the point is that the majority of gamers are wanting games with extreme realism, whether it's graphics, characters, physics and/or world. You cannot create such games and then leave out key elements that define our civilization. 

Of course this doesn't apply to games that are sci-fi or fantasy orientated because those games are mostly set in a fictional world, but Assassins Creed III is set in a defining moment of world history and as such it is required to throw out the junk of stereotypism and  racism so that we do not repeat mankinds errors again.

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

Yeah for sure we cannot say if it does include references to slavery or not until it comes out later this year.

But I have watched and read every single bit of information released by Ubisoft regarding the game.

None of which mention it at all in any real detail, most of the discussions on this subject have been publicly generated.

I also want to point out that I said "for example slavery was very prominent" I could have easily chosen something else but thought that it was a good subject choice for pointing it out.

I also know that previous assassin's creed games have ignored it , you our only further backing up my point that they ignored it and are likely to do so again.

This was because of one reason and one reason only Political Correctness. Slavery also should play a part in assassin's creed games, this is because they have said numerous times that they wish to create as historically accurate game world as possible.

I also mentioned that Ubisoft was good at being accurate. So I was not actually accusing them of altering the history they portray.

Hyperminimalism
Hyperminimalism

You also cannot say for certain that slavery won't be a part of the game.  Considering we haven't had a chance to see much aside from trailers and those Inside AC 3 videos that focus more on Connor, the plot and the combat system, I think it's unfair to accuse the devs of not portraying history appropriately. 

Besides, that's not what the game is about. While slavery might have been present in those days, Assassin's Creed is not about slavery. If you want to keep your argument, then I highly suggest you bring up the lack of focus on slavery during the crusades when we played as Altair because slavery existed then, too.

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

That may be true but the American Revolution still had a lot of slavery, but that what only used as a example as it was prominent at the time.

I to also look forward to learning about native American history in Assassin's creed 3 and never once said anything about it.

I am just fed up of a large part of developers time and money being taken up with avoiding these issues!

Not assassin's creed 3 as its historical accuracy is a major selling point. But other games where it is not needed.

Kerwin Octavo
Kerwin Octavo

I think your getting the Revolutionary War and the Civil War mixed up. The Civil War was the one which had much more slavery involved than the Revolutionary War. The people in the revolution had slaves but by the time the Civil War came around major southern states had huge populations of slaves.

I just hope you get to see aspects of the native american lifestyle!

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

Yes we should try to and I agree that games should be realistic in terms of graphics ect.

If anything they should be more realistic. I meant earlier that we should not enforce modern day values into games that are intended to entertain us not change the whole of mankind.

But when a game like assassin's creed 3 which is supposed to be historically accurate starts to blur what really happened back then it destroys its historical value.

For example slavery was incredibly prominent during the American revolution, yet have you seen anything at all depicting or even mentioning this?I highly doubt you have, this is what I meant by what I said earlier, when a game company or even a film or book writer is too scared.

To even depict the truth and instead just acts like it never happened or existed, then we lose the lessons they taught us, "If we forget the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat them".

If we do not show these thing when depicting history, how will people learn of the horrors that mankind inflicted upon each other?

We should show these things in games and I am not saying games for a 6 year old or something but for say a teenager. 

Basically when they are old enough to understand about the world.They should be exposed to the aspects of human history that were bad in order that they can truly understand why we have the laws that we do today!

Rather than just telling them that sexism is bad or that racism or what ever we choose to tell them is wrong, we can instead show them why it is wrong!

Seeing the problems first hand is going to send a far more powerful message to humanity, than merely telling people that No you cannot do this and No you cannot do that.

Jordan Seeberger
Jordan Seeberger

That is true but when I play games I like to see realistic qualities to it. It is sad when you see younger people start to take on the form of the stereotypes they see in movies and games. So when I see that someone actually tries to be correct about a culture its nice that some people actually care.

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

You our right about developers using stereotypes as a easy option for character development.

But it is NOT the majority as you seem to believe that do this, although I will admit that some do go over the top with it.

But when developers manage to achieve a perfect balance of  sarcastic or humours stereotyping, it makes the characters far more memorable.

Rather than having a character that is bland and dull, they can have a character that is bursting with life, they could give them funny stereotypical habits.

So if they had a English character (making fun of my own country now), they could give them a really strong cockney accent and have him drink tea with scones all the time.

To me this would make the character more entertaining, even though this has been done to death it makes the character instantly recognisable as English.

Or on the other hand we could have a English character who is well just a English guy who lives in a house and maybe goes down to the pub now and then.

So which one sounds more fun the stereotypical English character who drinks tea and scones and has a really strong cockney accent.

Or the plain and dull English character who sits at home all day and might go to the pub occasionally?

Llynnya
Llynnya

The problem is actually, that most developers either don't think about the stereotypes they are portraying and are like 'It's always been this way' which isn't really any creative at all, or they make the stereotypes because they think that they are required for their target audience to like the game, which also isn't really creative at all.

So actually these stereotypes hurt creativity because people just fall back to them and don't think about what else they could do, that maybe there could be new target groups acquired if they made something new etc. How are stereotypes ever creative? It's the dull 'I don't want to put too much thought in it' approach.

I think it's okay to portrait characters stereotypical if it's done on purpose, maybe a little over the top or sarcastically, but mostly it's just done because nobody ever thought about doing it any other way....

Nosoz Youwish
Nosoz Youwish

Yes I agree that it is nice that they try and be as culturally sensitive as possible when a game is directly depicting their culture and ancestors.

When done in cases like Assassin's Creed 3 it adds historical value and I imagine judging solely on previous Assassin's Creed games that it will add volumes to the game in terms of enjoyment and historical realism.

I only hate it when game developers not Ubisoft in particular but developers that go to great lengths, to avoid stereotypes in a game that is entirely fictional and not meant to insult people.

Doing this greatly limits creative freedom and can in many cases hinder development as they must find ways to avoid using stereotypes or other sensitive subjects.